Tuesday, 12 June 2018

COLTER WALL & 1970s TEXAS SONGWRITERS


I’ve been considering writing about this fantastic album for a while now. There is something so odd about finding a new artist who embodies everything you love about a very obscure and very localised music scene from the 1970s. I’m trying to get my head around how Canadian Colter Wall’s self-titled album could have ever gotten made in 2017.

Perhaps I should begin with my own experiences in this area. My interest in the 1970s Texas songwriters scene stemmed from my love of the music of Steve Earle. Earle was relatively big in Ireland. Look no further to Mundy/Sharon Shannon’s incredibly popular bubblegum cover of Galway Girl in 2008, which is still the 8th highest selling single in Ireland to date. Earle crossed genres between Country, Rock, Bluegrass, Folk, and dabbled in my background of Irish Traditional music.

If you follow Earle’s lineage back, you will find he cites his tutors in songwriting as two people: Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. As fans of Earle, myself and friends dug deep into his catalogue and eventually found ourselves watching the 1975 documentary by James Szalapski, Heartworn Highways. This film depicts the spawning of the Outlaw Country movement out of the folk singers in Texas at the time.



Heartworn Highways was a staple of our late night DVDs back in rural Tyrone, with outstanding performances and insights into artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, David Allen Coe, Steve Young and, of course, Steve Earle. The more we watched this documentary, the more we dug deeper into the mythology and music associated with that scene, finding obscure CDs or bootlegs or cover versions and sharing around like it was pure gold. I even picked up one of my prized possessions around that time for about a tenner: a signed copy of Our Mother the Mountain, arguably Townes’ greatest studio album.

I want to say the hype for this music amongst my peers picked up around 2003/2004, with Earle’s performance in the Ulster Hall on anti-Bush The Revolution Starts Now Tour being a noteworthy high point. The band that I was in played a raucous F the CC at a gig immediately following that show.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the internet helped with popularising obscure music, or whether it just allowed more people with obscure interests to openly and easily communicate. Although Earle has always held something of popularity in Ireland, Mundy’s Galway Girl cover certainly cemented it (ask any culchie DJ). I’m not lamenting the fact that Earle and his two mentors have gained in popularity, it is quite the opposite. I’m happy that more people are digging deeper into this amazingly rich music scene. It’s with this context that I’ll try and explain Colter Wall.

So imagine me, in Bristol’s Rough Trade shop, picking up a copy of this album on the recommendation of the sticker (and I love anything Dave Cobb gets involved in). When I got home and put the CD on I was blown away. This album lived and breathed that 1970s songwriter scene from Heartworn Highways. Teenage me would not believe that this kind of record could get released in 2017, that it would have gone under my radar, and that it would have been one of the strong recommendations of a local record store. I was amazed at how intensely developed his sound was for a first album, and how this recording captured that atmosphere with pin-sharp accuracy.



Let’s analyse a few of the songs. The opening Thirteen Silver Dollars starts as a relaxed story about an encounter with the police that picks up about halfway through with a Cash style stomp along chorus. Not only does this song reference Bluebird Wine, Rodney Crowell’s contribution to Heartworn Highways, but also Blue Yodel Number 9, the Jimmy Rodgers song Earle fans will recognise as appearing on Earle’s live album Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator.

The next track, Codeine Dream opens with a Townes-inspired picking pattern reminiscent of Townes’ version of Cocaine Blues. The song’s theme feels like a sequel to Townes’ classic Waitin Around to Die, in that it could be about the same character. If that wasn’t enough, Colter also sings ‘Sometimes I get to thinkin’/ Why wait around to die’.

Following that, we have Me and Big Dave, a lowkey story about two social outcasts. There is one line that reminds me of Our Mother the Mountain and Buckskin Stallion Blues by Townes. Compare the lyrics ‘So I reach for her hand, and her eyes turns to poison/ And her hair turns to splinters, and her flesh turns to brine’, ‘I heard her sing in tongues of silver’ with Walls’ ‘Their ears made of stone and their tongues made of poison’.

The next song, Motorcycle mentions Thunderbird wine, a  cheap & nasty fortified wine. The wine was a favourite with Towne Van Zandt penning Talkin Thunderbird Blues about the drink.

The album's centrepiece, Kate McCannon, a murder ballad that feels like a retelling of Earle’s bluegrass classic Carrie Brown (itself a very typical murder ballad) but set to the music of Ben McCulloch (minus the rousing major key chorus). There is another lifted phrase from a Townes song (Mr Mudd and Mr Gold) regarding the titular girl’s ‘long green eyes’, which I always assumed to mean greed/jealousy in the context of Townes’ song but perhaps just as a descriptive device in Wall’s.

The second half of the album features one song by Townes and one song that Townes had recorded. Snake Mountain Blues is played very well here, as is the duet of Fraulein with Tyler Childers.

Transcendental Ramblin’ Railroad Blues is similar to Earle’s Transcendental Blues in title only.

Altogether, I loved this album. My first listening experience was trying to figure out how to something that is so close to a 1970s Texas songwriter’s recording could be popular enough to arrive in my local record store. I enjoyed all the little references, audio and literary, to this period, and I’m sure I missed quite a few out. Looking forward to more from Colter Wall in the future.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

BORDER PHOTOGRAPHS, 25th MAY 2018

On the 25th of May, 2018, Ireland voted to Repeal the 8th Amendment. As the votes were being cast, I decided to take some photographs on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, along the Strabane/Lifford bridge.

The landslide victory for the Yes vote, one which shows how Ireland is finally ready to dump its image as a bastion of the Catholic church, also signifies just how backwards Northern Ireland is on this (and other) matters amidst extensive religious influence.

It’s difficult to discuss these images without taking into consideration the implication of religion as a political tool, one that now sees the ultra-rightwing party DUP now stubbornly at odds with both Ireland and the rest of the UK. I find this is particularly damning concerning the immediacy of Brexit: we currently have two weeks with no solution in sight. One can only hope that the current debacle will shine new light on the political darkness of Northern Ireland (on both sides of the religious divide) that was very much lacking in the run-up to the Brexit vote a few years ago.











Thursday, 31 May 2018

THINGS I WISH I'D KNOW RECAP

 I exhibited some new work in Bristol’s The Island gallery as part of the third group show from the MFA in Cardiff School of Art & Design. This show was entitled Things I Wish I’d Known, and I think having a title and theme for this show helped us to bring it together a bit more than what we’d been previously doing.


The blurb for the show was as follows:

'Things I Wish I’d Known is an art exhibition featuring current Master of Fine Art students from Cardiff School of Art and Design. The group show brings an honest exposure of things we wish we’d known; exploring the often eschewed aspect of development and personal growth as an artist. Within the show, there will be a variety of works in different media from both local and international artists.'

My statement responded:

'This show marks a departure from my usual practice of work based on 3D computer games. It is the first exhibit of my exploration into both sculptures, via 3D scanning/printing, and into photography with the accompanying supporting image.

As an artist who typically utilises and manipulates software for developing games, I imagined that transitioning to 3D model software would be somewhat similar and easy to pick up. I was very wrong. My prior experiences creating digital worlds did not prepare me for the inherent difficulties with this new toolset. Ultimately, I went through 7 different pieces of software until I found one that was both easy to use and had enough complexity for what I needed to achieve.

The end result is a number of printed copies of a shell casing. The original object was a friend’s family heirloom; a relic from the 1970’s conflict in Northern Ireland, fired from a paramilitary weapon. The act of duplication is to try and describe the importance of passing on family stories, but also how intergenerational trauma is still an issue in these post-conflict communities. There are a few copies that I have modified to try and point towards what it means to have an unfaithful copy, referring to misinformation and especially important regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland.

A recent photograph from the area is adjacent to reference the graffiti sloganeering of kids contextualised via post-conflict paramilitary glorification.'


Overall, I’m relatively happy with how my work holds up in the context of the space. I arrived to set up the show with two images on paper and a box full of 3D printed replica shell casings. It wasn’t until a few of the other pieces had been displayed in the space that I decided to use a plinth against the wall for my tiny sculptures. My initial thought was to present these on the floor, but the floor was pretty messy, and I felt that they might get lost amongst the splashes of white paint down there. Perhaps if I had more of the shells produced (like 200 or so), it would have worked better. But elevating them on this plinth worked well, and brought them nearer to the double image I had included.





I had the photograph printed off and tacked to the wall via map pins. The image itself was on a standard A3 portrait page, with the image composed towards the top of the page. I intentionally used this typical format and wanted the white space to draw the attention down towards the 3D printed pieces. In retrospect, this was probably too much, and somewhat unnecessary. Perhaps even the image as a whole was superfluous, but at least this was a good experiment to do.

In the future, I’m not sure if I will do much more 3D printing, with a new focus on reinterpreting 3D topographies as before, but I think documentary photography or video might play more of a part in contextualising my scenarios. The next group show is in Penarth Pier Pavillion and will be followed by the MFA show in Cardiff School of Art & Design in September.

Included below are a few more images I took at the exhibition.










Friday, 4 May 2018

SKYROADS BOX ART ii

A few years ago I decided to make some box art for an old favourite of mine, the DOS game SkyRoads. I was using the emulation software Boxer, which displays your game collection on digital shelves with the big box art front and centre. It was about this time that I realised that my virtual copy of SkyRoads didn't have a cover, and after a little searching around the internet I discovered that, as the game had not received a proper commercial release, it never had a physical box.


So I made fake box artwork for this game as a bit of a fun design project in an airport waiting lounge, and after uploading the results to this blog I promptly forgot about it. That is, until recently talking about SkyRoads with a friend, after which I  googled it to find out some piece of information. When the search came through on Google, my faux-artwork was right up there at the top of the page. From this, I decided to do a little bit more digging to see if it had appeared anywhere else.

I was pretty amazed at what I found next: someone had edited and printed out my box art to fit their copy of SkyRoads (including the yellow sticker). I wonder if they knew it was not the real artwork and just my little afternoon project? Will there be any long-lost boxed copies of SkyRoads appearing on eBay with extortionate prices? Who knows?





You can read my original blog post here.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Half-Life: 2018

Working with a 19-year-old game engine

For a recent project, I’ve decided to make a change from using the game development tool Unity and begun producing some work using the original Half-Life Goldsrc engine. I did this because I felt that there could be a much easier setup of a server (using a deathmatch/bot driven system), familiarity with the tools and knowledge of its limitations. There is also a definite history of artists using this engine for game art such as Tobias Bernstrup, Aram Bartholl and projects like Velvet Strike. I’ve also made some stuff with it in the past.

Valve Hammer Editor

During development for Schooldays End, I wanted to move away from interactive work to creating self-playing work. This would be easier to display in a gallery setting, require less setup, and avoid the immediate problems inherent in typical interactive art (of any kind). I piggybacked a version of Jumbot, and, with some modifications, I was able to get relatively close to an autonomous first-person deathmatch game with on-screen narrative elements. The prototype worked well enough for me to invest more time in creating the map for the scenario.

Simplified prototype game

This proved to be quite the problem. Although I had some experience in the past working with Valve Hammer Editor, I found it somewhat clunky to set up from scratch (via Steam on a boot camped Mac), and once I got into the swing of things, there was seemingly no end of errors and issues. Finding fixes to problems was also tricky, often encountering dead links on old forum posts. Very different from my experiences with the most positive and supportive community with Unity.

In-game screenshot

Currently, I’m trying to find a way to record a video of my game in action for exhibiting, but I’m now having trouble with the game quitting after 5 or so minutes.

Part of me is strongly considering switching back to using Unity after completion of this project as I’m not entirely happy with the text-based narrative and the other aesthetic compromises.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

BLINDBOY PODCAST AND POST-TROUBLES INTER-GENERATIONAL TRAUMA

Graffiti in Strabane, 2018

I’ve started listening to the Blindboy podcast, a fascinating weekly programme by popular Limerick comedian/musician from The Rubberbandits that tackles issues such as mental health, Irish culture, Marxism and philosophy. The podcast is fantastic, and I recommend everyone subscribe and listen.

One of the more recent episodes was a live recording from Duncairn Arts Centre in Belfast, where Blindboy interviewed Donzo, an award-winning tour guide from DC Walking Tours. Donzo takes people around the historically significant parts of Belfast that had been affected by the troubles. In this episode, they discussed many aspects of the civil conflict in Belfast, but what interested me, in particular, was a segment about how modern day post-troubles children were getting involved with continuing the violence and contributing to the perpetual feedback loop of sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

Now, this is a subject I am trying to tackle, explore and contextualise with my own practice.

In the discussion, Donzo and Blindboy offered one example each: The first was about how during a particularly politically heated time of year, groups of children from rival Catholic and Protestant communities attempted to meet up for a large-scale pre-organised fight. When the police approached one child before the riot, they discovered that both groups were in communication via text message, and were currently conversing to find a better location for the fight to occur, away from the police.

The second story was from Blindboy's southern Irish perspective. When he was a child, his own experiences of the troubles in the North were simply via the news. Blindboy’s childhood concept of masculinity was that to be a ‘hard lad’ you had to smoke hash and support the IRA. This concept physically materialised not through organised altercations as above, but through graffiti of Bob Marley with accompanying IRA glorification writing.

What is specifically interesting from each of these anecdotes is the idea that the children were using the historic sectarianism as merely a backdrop to manifest an example of hypermasculinity. It could be argued that this is exasperated somewhat by growing up in a post-trauma community, but what is of more importance is whether or not the sectarianism vein extends past its beginnings as simple childish behaviour to more sinister and deeply understood bigotry later in life. Again, the perpetual feedback loop.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard popularised the idea of Simulation, that events understood via the TV screen or newspaper are merely copies of the original even. I am interested in how children who have only lived in what might be considered peacetime (post-Good Friday Agreement) can still be influenced and subverted by old events through inter-generational stories. I understood such stories as unfaithful copies; perversions of reality and sometimes very dangerously sectarian.

There is undoubtedly something of a crossover between children, ultraviolence in video gaming and ultra-violence in real life. I am making my own simulations using such stories as foundation and subject matter. The results seem to dovetail very well and perhaps too easily. More to follow.


You can find a link to the specific podcast episode here.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

THREE DOORS UP EXHIBITION RECAP

Just some immediate thoughts and reflection from our recent group show in Three Doors Up. The show was called Who Me? and was the collective work of the 2017/2018 Fine Art Masters group from Cardiff School of Art and Design. While not a traditional exhibition, the space was presented as more of a working environment with a relaxed attitude. We were encouraged to drop in and produce work, change up the pieces and evolve the show over the period.

For this show, I chose to exhibit my Schoolday’s End self-playing game. I had initial thoughts to have the piece projected onto a wall, but it eventually worked out better to display via an old CRT TV on a plinth. A requirement of the space was to have a sofa for people who wanted to come and chat. I positioned my work adjacent the couch, something which I felt added a little to the overall feeling of my work and suited the nature of the exhibition.

I was able to change up my game throughout the show, adding different things, correcting errors, adding a new level and overhauling the colour. Other artists produced works on paper in the space, adding to the exhibition throughout the fortnight.

Some commented on the ramshackle appearance of the show, and I do indeed agree that we could have taken a more refined approach. Overall it wasn’t particularly bad considering it was the first time we had all exhibited together and also that we had all mostly different work. Part of my idea for at least one of our future exhibitions is to have a theme to glue our works together. It can be a loose theme, perhaps just a word or phrase, but something to help make it feel like a curated show and not just a collection of works produced by people studying together.

As far as paperwork was concerned, we had a printout of artist statements. There were no other materials, and some artists and visitors expressed that we should label the work, perhaps also including a visible price. It would probably have been useful to some extent, but I did enjoy approaching the public and explaining the works and artists, often giving much more insight than a simple title or printed piece while allowing for further conversation and discussion.














Thanks to Rob, Richard and Ronnie for their parts in the organisation of this show.